Sunday, 15 May 2016

Erik Satie - Four Jokes that Changed the History of Art

Part 3 Erik Saties - Four Jokes that Changed the History of Art
Many of us are aware of Satie's sense of humour, few realise how well he used his wit to change the World around him

Satie gave his autobiography a contradictory title: Memoirs of An Amnesiac. 
Memoirs of an Amnesiac

In it he tells us about his eating habits

 "My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself."

Drawing by Satie

and he tells what was going on in his mind when he wrote music:  "Everyone will tell you I am not a musician.

That is correct. From the very beginning of my career I class myself a phonometrographer. My work is completely phonometrical.

Take my Fils des Étoiles, or my Morceaux en forme de Poire, my En habit de Cheval or my Sarabandes - it is evident that musical ideas played no part whatsoever in their composition. Science is the dominating factor. Besides, I enjoy measuring a sound much more than hearing it. With my phonometer in my hand, I work happily and with confidence. What haven´t I weighed or measured? I´ve done all Beethoven, all Verdi, etc. It´s fascinating. The first time I used a phonoscope, I examined a B flat of medium size. I can assure you that I have never seen anything so revolting. I called in my man to show it to him.  

On my phono-scales a common or garden F sharp registered 93 kilos. It came out of a fat tenor whom I also weighed"

Satie's Letters were beautiful to look at

and are sometimes ornamented with drawings 

Satie's Letter to Eva

which like his music never waste a line

The notes for his sheets of music were fantastical,

His strange sparse scores, often written without bar lines

are peppered with whimsical instructions : " Like a Nightingale with Toothache" "Light as an egg", "Open your head" and "Work it out yourself"

 Satie took a delight in giving his compositions  bizarre and nonsensical names to

1912 "Véritables préludes flasques pour un chien" Flabby Preludes for a Dog 

1913  "Embryons desséchés" Desiccated embryos
1917  "Sonatine bureaucratique" Bureaucratic Sonatine 

Satie's wit beguiles us into believing he was always looking for ways to make a joke.  It is almost as if Satie was running an amusing sideshow on top of his more serious work as a composer.  There are many theories about why he did it; was it that he wanted to detract attention away from himself or was it a way to keep himself pure? 

Sometimes his wit changed history, here are four examples.

Joke Number 1: The Birth of Surrealism and the Language of Advertising

We already know that the word "surrealism" was invented by Guillaume Apollinaire to describe "The Alliance" between Satie, Picasso, Masssin and Cocteau.

Years earlier, in 1903, Satie had written one of his most popular pieces of music: Trois morceaux en forme de poire, (Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear for piano four-hands from 1903). 

In fact the music is an arrangement cabaret melodies in seven parts, not three, .

Conductor Vladimir Golsch Mann, recalled this conversation with Satie: "Once, after we had played Morceaux en forme de poire , I asked our hero....why he gave such a title Pieces in the Shape of a Pear to this ravishing music. He answered with a twinkle in his eyes:You do know that I visited Debussy quite often; I admire him immensely and he seems to think much of whatever talent I may have. Nevertheless, one day when I showed him a piece I had just composed he remarked, ‘Satie, you never had two greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had an influence on our writing....You have some kind of genius, or you have genius. From time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form...’

All I did,added Satie,was to write Morceaux en forme de poire. I brought them to Debussy who asked, ‘Why such a title?’ Why? Simply, mon cher ami, because you cannot criticize my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are in the form of a pear they cannot be shapeless."

Saties' friends picked up on this title as a sort of emblem for Satie's wit.  In 1913 Man Ray, when he wanted to pay homage to Satie, made this image of a Pear against the background.

Homage to Satie by Man Ray 1913
In 1946, the surrealist painter René Magritte, who was a fan of Satie's work, used the image of fruit against clouds in one his most famous surrealist paintings  Le fils de l'homme.

Le fils de l'homme 1946 Magritte

The language of Surrealism was adopted into modern advertising techniques, giving us brands like this.


and this

Joke Number 2: The Birth of French Impressionist Music

Satie openly stole tunes and parodied other composers music, he also liked to putting ideas from American music, Ragtime,into his compositions, but he was also very interested in purity, especially the purity of French music.  Satie became very well known for railing against the influence Wagnerian romanticism which he thought was polluting French music. He would say We need our own music, if possible without sauerkraut

Claude Debussy

He confronted Debussy with is opinions: "I explained to Debussy .......I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but we need our own music, if possible without sauerkraut."

Satie suggested Debussy should draw inspiration for a new kind of French opera from Impressionist painters such as Monet and Cezanne.

He told Debussy "There is no need for the orchestra to grimace when a character comes on the stage......Do the trees in the scenery grimace? What we have to do is create a musical scenery, a musical atmosphere in which the characters move and talk". Debussy later admitted that he used Satie's advice and this  led him to write   "Pelleas et Melisande" (1902),

Mary Garden: The first Mélisande

the first opera of the French Impressionist school of music.

Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Opéra Bastille

  Joke Number 3 - The Birth of Minimilism
About this time he Satie wrote an interesting was piece of music called “Vexations”,  it consisted of  half a sheet of music that was never published in Satie's lifetime. 
Vexations original Score

The music is a parody of what in Wagnerian music is known as the "unendliche Melodie" (unending melody).

Written above the music Satie directs the reader that: "In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence and serious immobility". Even before repetition, the piano line is unnerving: mild but menacing, exquisite but skewed, modest but exacting.

In 1963 John Cage arranged the first performance which took 18 hours and forty minutes, many times longer than Die Meistersinger, Wagnerian longest opera.   John Cage said that Satie was responsible for the “one new idea since Beethoven” the use of controlled duration as a structural element. 

The principles of John Cage in the 1960s and the Minimalistic music of Philip Glass of the 1990s had their origins in Satie's Humour.

Joke Number 4 The Birth of Background Music

In 1920 Satie introduced a concert featuring the works of Les Six (as the six young musicians that he worked with came to be called).

Groupe des Six Jacques-Émile Blanche

(Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey; at right: Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau.)

It was played during the first intermission and the audience was told, “We urgently beg you not to attach any importance to it and to act during intermission as if the music did not hopes to contribute to life the way a casual conversation does, or a picture in a gallery, or a chair in which one is or is not seated.” Despite this announcement, when the music started people returned to their seats.

Satie told everyone to keep talking “Whatever you do, don’t listen!”  Satie called this music " musique d’ameublement" "furniture music".  Satie and his Dadaist friends had invented the concept of  "background music"

His Legacy

Satie was very influential during his lifetime, but whenever success came his way he would shed another skin and reinvented himself.   After Satie died in 1925 he left a legacy of over 150 solo piano pieces, 14 songs, 6 stage works, Mass for voices and organ, a cantata and a new musical traditions that were followed by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Poulenc.

At the end of his life a fellow composer, Darius Milhaud wrote, "Satie was our mascot. The purity of his art, his horror of all concessions, his contempt for money, and his ruthless attitude toward the critics were a marvellous example for us all."

This is the legacy we have come here to celebrate tonight.

Reference Library


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